Grower Profile: Milkweed Tussock Tubers

Join us for a discussion with potato farmer Catherine Bennett!

Established in 2016, Milkweed Tussock Tubers may be relatively new to the scene–but lead farmer Catherine Bennett isn’t. Catherine grew up working on her family’s farm in De Peyster, NY, where Milkweed Tussock Tubers is located, and she's well-acquainted with the land.  She describes MTT as a “small-scale, woman-run, no-till, regenerative operation.” The farm raises an average of 16 varieties of spuds and has paired up with Seed Savers Exchange to restore the locally-developed Ashworth potato collection.

We’re pretty fond of spuds ourselves here at The Hudson Valley Seed Company, which is why we were excited to include MTT’s Purple Peruvian Potato in our potato offerings this year. Purple Peruvian is a drought- and heat-tolerant Andean heirloom well-suited to the Northern hemisphere. Now that potatoes shipments have begun, we thought this would be a good time to catch up with Catherine and learn more about her farm (and maybe get a few growing tips to boot!).

So, Catherine, give us a little background on Milkweed Tussock Tubers. How would you describe the operation?

Milkweed Tussock Tubers is still young, and still finding our way. Our goals are to restore and repopularize endangered root crops, farm in the most ecologically balanced way possible, and teach others to do the same. MTT runs on certain principles, the first being that the land is the boss. On the farm, we are primarily heavy clay, with patches of sandy loam. This means close listening, learning how agriculture can be a part of an ecosystem, not an interruption. We have a reforestation policy, build hedgerows and plant flowers, and are establishing several native root crops, such as wild ginger, sunchokes, groundnuts and Solomon's seal.

Of the potatoes you've grown on your farm, which have you found most interesting or impressive?

Oh, gosh. The more research one does on potatoes, the more you realize how diverse and amazing they are. One variety I grow that I particularly love is Papa Cachos, an Andean fingerling that gets to be a foot long. They are red skinned with pink flesh, drought hardy and very tall. I am also a fan of Granolas, a German variety released in the 1970s, who are great for storage and tolerant of insect damage. In 2021, I will be growing Llumchuy Waqachi, a beautiful potato unique to the Andes. This cultivar group includes a range of colors, but their defining characteristic is their extreme knobbliness. Llumchuy Waqachi, a Quechuan name, means, "Makes Daughter-In-Law Weep"; during the annual Quechuan Potato Festival, young women compete to see who can peel these bumpy, uneven spuds the best. Winners are declared fit for marriage.

How would you characterize the market for heirloom potatoes at the current moment? What are people looking for?

People don't know what they're looking for. There are approximately 6,000 varieties of potatoes on Earth, but Americans have become accustomed to "standard reds and whites." The stories, the songs, the colors, shapes and sizes of diverse spuds have been lost, or forcibly hidden. As a result, customers are no longer even exposed to the wonders of potatoes. But the local food and the rematriation movements are growing, and people are looking for foods that are fun, plants that are going to be unusual in their gardens, and those they can grow themselves.

Heirloom seeds from small companies are selling out fast, due in large part to their resilience and natural disease resistance. Small companies like Milkweed Tussock Tubers are also often willing to sell small quantities of potatoes, or mixed varieties, whereas corporations are not often so flexible. Customers are also becoming more aware of the dangers of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and are selling organically and regeneratively grown foods. And I have folks interested in potatoes with colored flesh (versus white or yellow) for health reasons, or for putting nice photos up on their Instagram accounts.

What are some surprising things that you learned "on-the-job" about growing potatoes and what advice can you offer to those who want to try growing potatoes at home?

Oh, I can certainly provide some tips, and I will, but the most important thing I've learned, and continue to learn on a daily basis, is not to be afraid to do something different. Or, fine, be afraid, but don't let that stop you. And when I say different, I mean, different from your neighbor with the giant, photo-worthy landscape garden. Different from your mother, who grows and cans her own vegetables, and even taught you. Different from what the pesticide aisle is pushing. Different from what you did last year. "Never be afraid to start again," is one of my favorite sayings. Find other teachers - the plants, the seeds, the land. Have fun in your differences, be proud of them.

 Know that your operation - whether you have a farm, a kitchen garden, a food forest or a pot of basil on the porch - is just as legitimate a way to grow as any other.

Click here for Catherine Bennett's Potato Growing Tips.

What's your long-term vision for Milkweed Tussock Tubers?

Milkweed Tussock Tubers is becoming an ecological, social and agricultural sanctuary. We are here to work with the land, learn from them, protect them, and bring others into the fold. We are currently St Lawrence County's only seed potato farm, and will continue connecting with seed lovers, Seed Keepers and the passionately curious. I would like to see native tubers become a staple of our production here, and I'd like to hold more classes and get-togethers where folks can learn and discuss ecological restoration through the growing of food. I would also like to see critically endangered potatoes have a safe haven here, so that more people can enjoy them. And if there were someone else who wanted to start their own seed potato farm, I would absolutely love to meet them.

How can people connect with what you're doing?

I love it when fellow spud lovers contact me, and folks are always welcome to visit or volunteer on the farm. Milkweed Tussock Tubers is a host through WWOOF, and we offer internships with room, board and a stipend.

Online, our presence is still small. We have a Facebook page, our username is @MilkweedTussockTubers. We're registered with the Real Organic Project and listed with Gardenshare, our local food sovereignty organization. I am working on a website, maybe that'll be out in a few months!

But right now, we have a very specific project we're working on: The MTT Haymaker Challenge. As part of our regenerative practices, we are training three oxen for the farm, and we heavily mulch our gardens. We therefore need to be able to make and store hay, but our secondhand equipment has all broken down. We're running an Indiegogo campaign to purchase new $13,000.00 worth of haying equipment, so everyone should feel free to check it out, spread the word, or contribute!  

Awesome. We're so impressed by your care for the land and wish you luck with the fundraising challenge (and we love those Milkweed Tussock t-shirts you're giving away as perks!). Thanks again for the Potato Growing Tips!